Fall Literature Summary in Translation: NPR

The Luminous Novel, Kaya Days and the Life Sciences

Author and translator Jennifer Croft recently wrote a editorial outlining the reasons why translators should be named on book covers. I couldn’t agree more with Croft; I agree so much, in fact, that reading the editorial infuriated me, for the simple reason that Croft shouldn’t have needed to write it at all.

From my perspective as both a translator and a literary critic who frequently revises translated works, putting the translator’s name on the cover is as vital – and as logical – as putting the writer’s name on it. I want to know who owns the words of the book. Often, in fact, I choose to read a translated book precisely because I admire the translator’s previous work, as is the case with the three books below. Take Annie McDermott, who translates, among other things, cult Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero. I have been a fan of Levrero since I started reading it in Spanish over ten years ago. McDermott’s translation of his novel Empty words still amazed me. He showed me bits of the text that I had missed in Spanish, while also capturing the charming and eerie spirit of Levrero that I love. Naturally, then, I rushed to read McDermott’s latest Levrero translation. The moment I saw his name on the cover, I knew I was in good hands.

The luminous novel, by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott

Let me put the comparison aside: if you like Karl Øve Knausgaard’s My battle, then you will love Levrero Bright novel. The book, which is generally considered his masterpiece, is split into two totally unequal parts: the first 400 pages are Levrero’s diary of how he spent his time after receiving a Guggenheim scholarship in 2000, and the last 100 are the first chapters of the incomplete autobiographical “luminous novel” he was supposed to complete with his time funded by Guggenheim. In the journal, which is at once mundane, endearing and incredibly relaxing to read, Levrero – or a character based on Levrero – describes his daily routines and obsessions: a dead, rotting pigeon on a nearby rooftop, his efforts to make Microsoft Word work. better, his quest to buy his very first air conditioner. Every now and then he writes a hilarious and apologetic letter to Mr. Guggenheim, promising to resume work on the novel soon; sometimes he thinks sadly: “I wonder what I’ve been doing all this time”; sometimes he has moments of pure triumph, like when he sets up his air conditioner and exclaims, “HA HA HA! I conquered the summer!

Translating a novel fueled entirely by the self-deprecating charm of the narrator can’t be easy, but McDermott does an exceptional job. Levrero, at one point, worries that he has become addicted to the “trance states” of online card games and the reprogramming of Word; her concern is correct, but she also emphasizes the fact that reading The luminous novel can itself induce a state of trance. McDermott’s prose is smoothly paced, very entertaining, and extremely easy to integrate. After 500 pages, I was still disappointed that the book had to end.

Kaya days, by Carl de Souza, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

In 1999, Mauritian singer Kaya, who invented the musical genre known as seggae, died in police custody after being arrested for smoking marijuana on stage. His death resulted in days of turmoil, which the Mauritian novelist Carl de Souza captures beautifully in his tense and urgent novel. Kaya days. Rather than focusing his story on the protests, de Souza sneaks between them as his protagonist, Santee, searches for his fleeing brother, Ram. In the early chapters of the story, Santee is shy and sheltered; she wanders into a brothel without realizing it and fails to recognize a predatory sexual advance until it is too late. For Santee, the city is “Ram’s world” – as, by the way, everywhere else. In the village, at Ma’s, she thinks, Ram was the center of the universe. In Kaya days, however, Santee is the center. She learns to navigate male attention; she joins in the plunder; she quickly passes from amazement at the sight of a ravine to herself striking the fear of her suitor and her guide. By the end of the story, Santee has become a grown-up, confident version of herself.

De Souza’s prose, which includes significant amounts of Creole in addition to French, reflects the transformation of its protagonist: his sentences, in Jeffrey Zuckerman’s excellent translation, are convincing at the start of the book, but become downright hypnotic at the same time. end. Kaya days is a novel designed to be read all at once, and Zuckerman’s prose is propulsive enough to make the book nearly impossible to let go. In his translator’s note he writes that “finding English to reflect the frantic energy of [de Souza’s] French and Creole have been both a mind-blowing challenge and a delightful opportunity to revitalize English. His prose is vital here in both senses of the word: full of life and essential.

Life sciences, by Joy Sorman, translated by Lara Vergnaud

Ninon Moise, the teenage protagonist of French novelist and journalist Joy Sorman Life sciences, is the only daughter of a mother whose family has a centuries-old legacy of bizarre female diseases. Ninon’s mother, Esther, cherishes this dark heritage; she tells Ninon stories about the crises, injuries and addictions of their ancestors, describing them with “dramatic joy and theatricality”. Ninon can tell her mother that she is waiting for her to get sick – but when the skin on Ninon’s arms suddenly becomes painfully sore, making even the brush of a sheet agonizing, her relationship with Esther instantly crumbles. Alone, Ninon goes through years of medical disbelief and perplexity; often she feels that her skin itself has “become a hallucination”.

Sorman uses his protagonist’s suffering to criticize the medical establishment, with its enormous imbalance of power between doctor and patient; by the time Ninon goes from doctors to Paris’s bizarre army of shamans, it seems clear that for Sorman the two are barely distinguishable. His detached tone, which Lara Vergnaud makes clean and stylized, adds to the sense of the novel-critic: often, Sorman’s narrator seems to be speaking in a voiceover, as if Ninon were the subject of a documentary. This strategy serves to alienate the reader from Ninon, just as Ninon’s pain alienates her from her mother and peers. Life sciences is a solitary book – and, for that reason, effective. As unsympathetic as Sorman’s style may seem, it forces the reader to take into account what Ninon is going through.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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